Olympian Jones Discusses Race, Work

On Sunday in Beijing, the U.S. men smashed the 4x100 Relay World Record by 3.99 seconds. Cullen Jones swam the third leg of the race. He says he was shaking and cheering during the last leg when Jason Lezak set the record in the 400-meter freestyle relay.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So Adam Nelson's Olympics are about to begin. For swimmer Cullen Jones, the games are over and he's still glowing.

His one event was the men's 4-by-100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing on Sunday night. The U.S. beat out the favored French team by the tiniest of margins, to set a new world record and take the gold. And with that medal, Cullen Jones became only the second African-American swimmer ever to win Olympic gold. Jones swam the third leg of that race.

When he spoke with me today from the media center in Beijing, he talked about watching the anchor swimmer, Jason Lezak, swim those dramatic final 50 meters.

Mr. CULLEN JONES (Swimmer, U.S. Olympic Team): I got out of the pool and I was shaking because I was just screaming at the top of my lungs, cheering Jason on to try to will him to the wall.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting because in that last leg, the last 50 meters that Jason Lezak is swimming, your teammates, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, were at the side of the pool going nuts. And I was looking for you; you were nowhere to be found. What happened?

Mr. JONES: It's really funny that you say that, because there have been a few Web sites that have been actually trying to find me in the footage. Where is Cullen Jones? I actually climbed out of the ladder off the side of pool. I was watching so intently that I couldn't move. I actually held my breath for the last 25 meters of Jason swimming in. And when he got to the wall, I definitely jumped up and almost fell back into the pool.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: When you got out of the pool, your mother was there at the Water Cube. Did you look for her in the stands? Could you find her?

Mr. JONES: I had no idea where she was. I was screaming my head off when we finished. I was just so excited and so tired - I had no idea where my mother was. And what was actually really funny was I told myself I wasn't going to cry on the podium. I was like, no, no, that's not going to happen. But then, Jason said, oh yeah, your mom is sitting next to my wife and they're both crying. And when I looked at her, that was it, I just started tearing up.

BLOCK: You've talked a lot about your mom. And in fact there's an ad that's been running through the games for Johnson & Johnson. It's a tribute to your mother, who you call your number one cheerleader, Debra Jones. Let's listen to the end of this ad.

(Soundbite of Johnson & Johnson ad)

Mr. JONES: I knew that no matter what I did at any race, the loudest person in the stands was going to be you. Now I'm going to the Olympic Games, and it's all thanks to you. I still hear you sometimes, especially in my head, screaming: go, Cullen, go, go! Thanks, Mom.

BLOCK: Cullen Jones, this ad gets me every time.

Mr. JONES: Oh, well, thank you. They aired that commercial right after the ceremony of us getting the medal, and I think they had meant to do that. I got a lot of messages on my e-mail, saying, did they plan that, because I just started crying right after? And I couldn't (unintelligible).

BLOCK: Let's go back to how this swimming thing all started for you. And it could have ended badly. This is at a water park when you were five years old.

Mr. JONES: I was five years old and we were at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania. And there was a huge inner tube ride, and at the bottom of the ride was a pool of water. And I ended up flipping upside down. And I was clenching on to the inner tube and was upside down, and passed out. And the life guard and my dad had to come in save me and give me resuscitation. But when I woke up, I was like, yeah, all right, what's the next ride we're getting on? My mom still kind of cringes when I tell the story.

BLOCK: You started swimming though - you started taking lessons very soon after that.

Mr. JONES: The next week, actually, my mom had me in lessons. She was very protective of me because I was an only child, and she wanted me to make sure that I was going to be okay in and outside of the water. And that's exactly why it's so dear to me now that I'm in a position where I can help out and try to get kids to understand, maybe not to fill my shoes or find the next Michael Phelps, but get someone to help the drowning rate and just get kids to understand the importance of being around water and in water.

BLOCK: And you've talked about this a lot that the drowning rate for black children is far higher than it is for white children.

Mr. JONES: Yes. Minorities are three times more likely to drown. And it's anywhere - it's in the ocean or the pool. It's just so dear to me because I could have easily been in the same situation. And it never deterred me, and I think that's why people think it's so ironic that I ended up being a gold medalist.

BLOCK: Well, Cullen Jones, congratulations on your gold. And thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. JONES: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me. It's been great.

BLOCK: Cullen Jones, gold medalist with the 4-by-100 meter relay team at the Beijing Games. He'll kick off a diversity tour in the fall, promoting water safety to minority children with clinics and swim meets. And he says he'll be back in the pool, training hard, with his eye on winning four gold medals in 2012.

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Gold Medalist Cullen Jones On Chasing History

Cullen Jones

Cullen Jones shows poses with the gold medal during the award ceremony for the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak

(From left) Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Swimmer Cullen Jones is still relishing his first-place finish at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

"I am on cloud nine since I've gotten the gold," he told NPR's Farai Chideya.

Jones helped the U.S. Olympic men's freestyle swimming team secure a nail-biting victory on Monday, in what has been hailed as one of the most exciting races in the games' history.

He and teammates Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle relay.

Jones, 24, made history in another way: He became the second African-American swimmer to win a gold medal, following Anthony Ervin in 2000.

"I was shaking behind the blocks," he said, describing his restlessness before the race. "I was so nervous. It was my first Olympics, and I wanted to really perform well because I had three other guys that were depending on me to swim fast. But all the preparation, all the training that I've done prepared me for it."

Those years of training came after Jones, at the age of 5, nearly drowned at a water amusement park.

"I ended up passing out," he said. "I had CPR done, and I came back, and I was like, 'What's next?' It didn't even faze me."

But the incident underscores a grim statistic: Nearly 60 percent of African-American children can't swim, and black children drown at a rate almost three times the overall rate, according to a study commissioned by USA Swimming.

"I was devastated to see that blacks and Hispanics are almost three times more likely to drown than their counterparts," said Jones. "To think back to my story when I was 5, I could have easily been added to the number."

It's a cause Jones is now championing, increasing awareness about water safety and drawing new faces to the pool.

"It's kind of ironic that now I'm a gold medalist, and I'm in a position to help diversity in the sport."

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